Monday 30 December 2019



 Expanded Book Review of: 
 (Backbeat Books) 
ISBN 978-1-61713-665-8 Softcover. 372pp

You never know you’re living a golden age, until it ends. Robert Nesta Marley was the high priest who took the Reggae curveball and lucratively shifted the paradigm. Yet like every pioneer, he transcends the genre, playing things bright and broad, sharply-attuned yet sandpaper-abrasive. Moving away from the toasting sound-systems of Trenchtown he set the Wailers mobile, gigging and touring like a regular Rock band in order to become the Third World’s biggest star. Both Natty Dread political and Rasta-spiritual, ganja natural mystic and troubadour, he caught the fire until you never quite knew where his dub soundscape was going to skank next. In Brent Hagerman’s book, the full story unfolds in a uniquely sub-titled format, under a series of easy-to-find topic-headings, familiar, but with a wealth of unsuspected detail too. About eighteen-year-old Afro-Jamaican mother Cedella ‘Ciddy’ Malcolm, and feckless sixty-year-old white father Captain Norval Sinclair Marley, who at least had the decency to marry her, although he disappeared after the ceremony, and already had other wives anyway. Brought up within the strong female support-network, young Bob nevertheless followed his paternal example, leaving several children by various mothers.

Geographically off-trail, but creatively rich, Jamaica has a musical history worth recounting. Often confused with calypso, Jamaican Mento was a precursor to reggae, popular during the 1940s and 1950s, using humour and double entendre as well as pointed jibes at topical issues. Laurel Aitken was already there, although it was Harry Belafonte who took the style with him when his parents upped and moved from Jamaica to New York, where his enduring stardom and Civil Rights political activism established a precedent for others to follow. There’s a strange story concerning the origins of Ska and BlueBeat. That Jamaican radios could pick up broadcasts from New Orleans R&B stations, and local musicians were attempting to imitate the ‘second-line’ shuffle-jump they heard on early Fats Domino records, but got it slightly wrong, accentuating the one-drop afterbeat rhythm according to instinct and dynamic predilection with offbeat piano and honking saxes. Those who couldn’t afford radio heard imported records on competitive local sound systems, including those operated by Clement Dodd, who took scouting-trips through the southern US States searching out R&B records to give his turntables that vital edge.

Oddly enough, the first UK chart hit to utilise the new rhythm came in the unlikely form of the decidedly untrendy Migil Five, whose “Mockingbird Hill” made the Top Ten in March 1964. But by the same token – historically, the first-ever Jazz record came from the very white Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, so maybe there was a precedent! The Migil Five were swiftly followed by the more authentic Millie Small with “My Boy Lollipop” which peaked at no.2. She toured on the ‘Lollipop Express’, her infectious energies and youthful appeal leading some adventurous record-buyers to seek out her more obscure Jamaican releases including the “Millie And Her Boyfriends” EP (Island IEP-705) featuring duets with Owen Gray and Jackie Edwards. Chris Blackwell was instrumental in promoting her career, just as he would aid Bob Marley’s commercial potential, and provide a vital bridge through his Island Records label.

While there was never institutionalised segregation here as there was in southern American States, the Caribbean immigrants of what is now termed the ‘Windrush Generation’ were familiar with the brute uninformed racist attitudes and behaviour of the host nation. But human nature being what it is, where cultures clash there are cross-over attractions too. As it ever was. Young Bix Beiderbecke, of 1920s German stock in Davenport, Iowa was seduced away by the sound of Jazz rippling in across the Mississippi from the riverboats. Just as young dirt-poor Elvis Presley tuned into black 1950s Memphis radio stations, loving, memorising and imitating each beat he heard there. 

In the UK, the insidious smiling infiltration of irresistible rhythms loosened up old post-imperial reserve and formalities. The in-crowd Mod soul-boy were early adaptors, sharing the exclusivity of subculture initiation through the immigrant community, with Ezz Reco And The Launchers “King Of Kings” which climbed to no.44 in March 1964. A bigger-personality star, the eminently danceable boxer-deejay Prince Buster charted with “Al Capone” to no.18 in February 1967, on the Blue Beat label, with ‘AL C’PONE’S GUNS DON’T ARGUE!’, a startle of sten-gun fire, a screech of tortured tyres, and then the rhythm. That perfect ooze of sensually loping BlueBeat rhythm… as well as “Judge Dread” – ‘I have come here to whoop you, to try all you Rude-boys for shooting black people.’ His ‘Fabulous Greatest Hits’ LP was a firm fixture on every Mod turntable, while his enduring “One Step Beyond” was instrumental in launching the Coventry 2-Tone movement during the last few years of the 1970s. 

Then there were the Ethiopians (“Train To Skaville” a no.40 in September 1967), and the up-tempo Pyramids with Eddy Grant’s “All Change On The Bakerloo Line”, May 1968, on the yellow President label. The Pioneers “Long Shot Kick De Bucket” on Trojan in 1969, was also making inroads. The Melodisc label roster boasted the more hardcore Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Laurel Aitken, Derrick Morgan and the Skatalites (the contagiously jumpy “Guns Of Navarone” from Studio One’s houseband). Until the first credited reference to reggae came from Toots And The Maytals in 1968, with “Do The Reggay”, adapting a word with Yoruba roots, meaning rough or untidy. Describing a music proudly and distinctively native to post-independence Jamaica. With trace-elements spun off from R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll, but neither. It was something separate. Not US-of-A, or BritPop. Percolated through Jamaica’s unique history and traditions, back through slavery, deprivation and poverty, but driven by a hunger to overcome those things. Fired in equal measure by anger and community. What Hagerman calls ‘the rich cultural heritage of reggae, flowing from what the elites would consider the rough, uncultured people of Kingston’s poorest neighbourhoods.’

It’s often forgotten that skinheads – frequently associated with right-wing attitudes, championed reggae too. Symarip – a reverse variation on the Pyramids, took advantage of this with “Skinhead Moonstomp” – ‘I want all you skinheads to get up on your feet, put your braces together and your boots on your feet, and give me some of that old Moonstomp…’, which also achieved renewed attention during the 1980s 2-Tone eruption. While Desmond Dekker And The Aces rudie anthem “007 (Shanty Town)” took the Pyramid label to a high of no.14 in July 1967 momentously aided by a wonderfully atmospheric monochrome video shot in Kingston by Graeme Goodall. I breathlessly watched that video run on ‘Top Of The Pops’, strangely raw, alluringly alien, mesmerised by the beautifully exotic girl in a white dress immaculately skanking across the street. “The Israelites” followed. Despite its virtually incomprehensible lyrics it dethroned Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It On The Grapevine” to become Reggae’s first no.1, in March 1969, making Desmond Dekker its first global star. 

Meanwhile, born hungry in the Nine Mile hamlet on 6 February 1945, ‘taking Reggae music to the world obviously wasn’t on young Nesta’s mind when he was running barefoot over the green mountains of Nine Mile,’ but Bob Marley served a long apprenticeship as part of the Wailers, ravenous both for escape and for experience. With Peter ‘Tosh’ McIntosh and half-brother Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingstone they record for Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd’s ramshackle Studio One, which had aspirations to become ‘Jamaica’s Motown’. The October 1965 ‘Wailing Wailers’ album (reissued 2016 as Studio One LP-SOR-001) was assembled from previously-issued seven-inch sides, using the Soul Brothers house-band, including the original cut of “One Love”, and early single “Rude Boy” – a ghetto-youth anthem which found instant tribal resonance. There’s also local Wailers hit “Simmer Down”, with the Skatalites providing back-up, which reached the UK through Trojan. 

The Wailers record with Chinese-Jamaican Leslie Kong, before they switch to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for early classics “Small Axe”, and the loping “Duppy Conqueror” (‘The bars could not hold me, force could not control me, now they try to keep me down’) – patois can be impenetrable at times, and “Trench Town Rock”, which all leads up to ‘Soul Rebels’ (December 1970). Produced by ‘Scratch’ Perry, the LP became not only, arguably, the first ever Reggae album – as distinct from a grab-bag collection of singles, it also established a regional profile, and got issued in a UK deal through Trojan. Until, despite its title, ‘Best Of The Wailers’ (August 1971) is not a compilation – recorded at Dynamic Sound Studios, for Leslie Kong, it includes three Peter Tosh compositions including “Stop That Train” which would reappear on ‘Catch A Fire’ and “Soon Come” which Tosh would rework for his own ‘Bush Doctor’ LP, there’s a reggae take on “Go Tell It On The Mountain”, plus six new Marley songs. ‘Bob Marley, like other innovative Jamaican musicians, always balanced paying respect to the music’s roots with adding something new. He drew from existing songs and created new ones; he borrowed from tradition yet broke new ground.’

The early UK seventies saw a slew of saccharine-Reggae and Rock-Steady singles diluted with strings into marketable commodity, while every desperate Rock band tried ineptly to catch the fire with clumsy Reggae and Dub shots, appropriating and scrambling for relevance. Until the arrival of Bob Marley reset the roots rebel-music paradigm all over again. There was Dennis Alcapone, Burning Spear, the much-banned Max Romeo, ‘Roots Man’ I Roy, and Toots And The Maytals, but it was Marley’s songwriting that was first focused by Eric Clapton, as ‘the black Bob Dylan’. Just as the Byrds cross-over hit with “Mr Tambourine Man” had once brought Bob Dylan to mainstream attention, so Clapton’s lack-lustre retread of “I Shot The Sheriff” did it for Marley. Then the smooth Sam Cooke-tones of good-looking Johnny Nash’s Pop-sweetened version of “Stir It Up” also provides the breach. Militant and uncompromising, Marley’s dreadlocked presence, allied to a Punky-Reggae collusion did the rest. 

Chris Blackwell, through Island, became both the enabling fixer, and a demonised figure, depending on perspective. He overdubbed original Wailers sides with Rock elements intended to make them more palatable to the domestic market. The major breakthrough album, and defining statement, ‘Catch A Fire’ (April 1973), is a case in point. Although recorded in three Jamaican studios, including Harry Js and Dynamic Sound, it was financed by Island Records, with the master-tape subsequently reworked in London, with uncredited Muscle Shoals guitarist Wayne Perkins added. Later that same year, ‘Burnin’ (October) revisits “Small Axe” and “Duppy Conqueror”, with the authentic “I Shot The Sheriff”, plus the confrontational “Get Up, Stand Up”, a defiant call to arms against oppression and social poverty written by Marley in collaboration with Tosh. With Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett of Lee Perry’s Upsetters on bass, and brother Carlton ‘Carlie’ Barrett on drums, it is in some ways the strongest Wailers moment, before Bob emerged with greater frontman prominence. 

With chart Pop getting increasingly teen-silly, and the Hippie counter-culture more self-indulgently introspective, hungry Rock stars who’d fought their way out of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham or Newcastle back-streets were lounging beside their LA mansion pools in a cocaine haze, so it was the Reggae underground in general – and the Wailers in particular, who now provide the frisson of an innovatory edge of radical danger. Renewing, with the raw sniff of the real what Rock and Soul had forgotten. Blood and grit, spiced with that exotic aroma of illicit herbal stimulants, gaining Bob Marley a whole new white middle-class audience.

The first album without Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer – ‘Natty Dread’ (October 1974), is the first to be credited as Bob Marley And The Wailers, the cover shot showing only Bob’s stark full-face image. It retains the Barrett brothers rhythm section, as well as introducing the I-Threes vocal back-up of Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths – who had chart hits of her own with Bob Andy, as Bob And Marcia, including “Young, Gifted And Black”. From the album’s catchy party celebration “Lively Up Yourself” (originally a 1971 Jamaican Tuff Gong single), to the original studio “No Woman, No Cry” looking back wistfully to his Trenchtown childhood, into the insurrectionary political “Revolution” and “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)” – ‘a hungry mob is an angry mob’, the songs offer the spiritual third way with Rastafari. 

Although all written by Marley, for reasons of litigation there’s some author attribution to others, including “No Woman No Cry” itself, which is credited to Vincent ‘Tartar’ Ford, a man who operated a free Kingston soup kitchen from which the young struggling Bob had benefited. A number of ‘Natty Dread’ tracks were carried over into the concert recorded in July 1975 at the ‘Lyceum’ for LP ‘Live’ (December 1975), alongside solid renditions of “I Shot The Sheriff” and “Get Up, Stand Up”. Vital for those with a need to experience the full vicarious thrill of that incendiary performance power by proxy, the album also resulted in the full 7:08-minute live “No Woman No Cry” making Marley’s UK chart debut when edited down to just 4:05-minutes – up to no.22 in September 1975, although it would peak as high as no.8 when reissued in May 1983. 

Next, ‘Rastaman Vibrations’ (April 1976) formed a significant breakthrough into the American ‘Billboard’ Top Ten, with spin-off “Roots, Rock, Reggae” his only release to crack the US singles chart, helped in part by the album’s inclusion of Blues guitarists Al Anderson and Donald Kinsey. “War” borrows heavily from Haile Selassie’s 1963 United Nations speech, ‘until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa sub-human bondage have been toppled, utterly destroyed, well, everywhere is war – me say war.’ At last, Bob Marley was articulating Jamaican aspirations from a global stage, spearheading acceptance for other contemporary releases by Peter Tosh – ‘Legalize It’ (Virgin, 1976) and for Bunny Wailer’s ‘Blackheart Man’ which features both Tosh and Marley in its credits. 

Linking up with the Rolling Stones – always astute when it comes to identifying with black credibility, Peter Tosh recorded Smokey Robinson’s “Don’t Look Back” as a duet with Mick Jagger for his 1978 ‘Bush Doctor’ set, briefly achieving a visibility close to even eclipsing market-leading Bob Marley! While Bob himself recorded ‘Exodus’ (June 1977) during his London exile. Alongside standout tracks “Waiting In Vain”, “Three Little Birds”, and “One Love/People Get Ready”, there is “Jamming” spun-off to hit no.9 (c/w the non-album “Punky Reggae Party”), and the “Exodus” single which took him into the Top Twenty in June 1977. Powerfully rhythm-driven, he challenges ‘open your eyes and look within, are you satisfied with the life you’re living?’ then offers the solution, ‘break downpression, rule equality, wipe away transgression, set the captives free’, to escape Babylon with the Biblical echoes of exile and deliverance from slavery, ‘we’re going to our Father’s land.’ Both a protest and a celebration. 

Behind the gaudy red-green-gold poster-image of Bob’s arcing Dreadlock spray, there was a rather more complex human being. There’s a deification process that happens to dead stars. John Lennon gets sanctified as the apostle of loving peace, ignoring his frequent deliberate cruelties. For Bob Marley, although his ‘One Love’ philosophy modified as his fame grew, and he became more media-savvy in interview situations, his attitude to Gay ‘batty-bwoys’ was less than acceptable, just as his mistreatment of women could be offensive. We enjoy Prince Buster’s bombastic “Ten Commandments Of Man” because we assume it to be tongue-in-cheek. Its reality, in patriarchal Jamaican culture, is more grim. Rita Marley would be subsequently demonised as ‘The Yoko Ono Of Reggae’, yet she was part of Bob’s onstage I-Three, a positive strength and fixture during Bob’s life despite his physical and psychological abuse, just as she went on to become the guardian and administrator of his legacy. 

We’re on firmer ground with Bob’s politics of unity, his ‘Smile Jamaica’ concert was intended to reconcile feuding factions, it made his rhetoric more solid than mere platitudes, yet led to the vicious assassination attempt made upon his life. The shooting at his 56 Hope Street base has been variously attributed by conspiracy theorists to the CIA intent on undermining what was seen as Marley’s support for the socialist-inclined Michael Manley’s PNP party, or to fissiparous elements within Jamaican politics itself. It nevertheless led to a self-imposed exile in London, until Bob’s triumphant return with the ‘One Love Peace Concert’ in April 1978.

 When Marley toured with Stevie Wonder, opening shows across America, the Motown star recorded “Master Blaster” in reggae-style, with lyrics celebrating ‘Marley’s hot on the box’, and referring to Bob’s participation in the Zimbabwe liberation concert at Harare’s Rufaro Stadium in April 1980 with an optimistic ‘peace has come to Zimbabwe’, while joyously advocating Pan-African solidarity with “Africa Unite” on the album ‘Survival’ (October 1979), the first result of Bob’s own Tuff Gong studios at Kingston’s 56 Hope Street.

There’s a strange and perhaps patronising attitude applied by the music press towards Marley’s Rastafarian beliefs, treating them with a serious respect they would not display towards – say, Cliff Richard’s espousal of Christianity, or Cat Stevens conversion to Islam. From a sensibly atheist perspective all such beliefs are equally ludicrous, even when they may provide a source of solace and moral structure. Yet Bob obviously draws on deep wells of intense spirituality on the acoustic non-Reggae “Redemption Song” from ‘Uprising’ (October 1980), for my money, one of his finest songs, which incorporates phrases from Marcus Garvey about ‘emancipate yourself from mental slavery… none but ourselves can free our minds.’ This is powerful stuff. Yet it was the final studio album released during his lifetime. By then he’d been diagnosed with the cancer that would end his life, and he was in physical pain during the Chris Blackwell-produced sessions. ‘Confrontation’ (May 1983), is made up of previously unissued outtakes – “I Know” dates back to 1975, with half-finished tracks completed after his death, includes the no.4 chart hit “Buffalo Soldier” about black units active during the American Civil War. Various compilations and greatest hits packages inevitably follow, although the box-set ‘Songs Of Freedom’ (September 1992) includes the 1973 track “Iron Lion Zion” – again drawing on Rasta imagery, which was remixed with Courtney Pine’s horn, to become a no.5 hit single during September 1992, for inclusion on the album ‘Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On’ (1995).

You never know you’re living a golden age, until it’s over. Even at the end, for Bob Marley, there were racial and spiritual complications. Supposedly, people of colour do not suffer from this virulent form of skin-cancer. Well, apparently they do. Bob was advised to distrust Babylon medicines, put his faith in Rastafari and the curative powers of ganja. Yet, following the metastasising of the melanoma in his toe, spreading to his other organs, Bob Marley died 11 May 1981. Chemotherapy treatments at Miami’s Cedars Of Lebanon hospital even caused his mighty dreadlocks to fall out, only to be stitched together into a wig to preserve his Rasta dignity.

The story is not yet entirely told. Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse and Aswad carried the Reggae heritage forward. It could be argued that all the elements that made Hip-Hip and Rap were already active in Trenchtown with dub-mixing, Ragga (ragamuffin), DJ toasting and Dancehall. It just took the world a time to catch up. While Jamaican music still periodically re-conquers the world with Shaggy, Ini Kamoze (“Here Come The Hotstepper”), Omi (2015’s hit “Cheeleader”) and beyond. There are still rumours, and previously-unsuspected caches of Bob Marley rehearsal tapes to be unearthed, as those from the London Little Venice hotel where the High Priest Of Reggae stayed during the 1970s. 

 But don’t worry ‘bout a ‘ting’, you believe this man can fly. 

An edited version of this feature published in: 
‘R’N’R’ Vol.2 Issue 77 (September-October)’ 
(September 2019)

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